School board members unleashed their frustrations on the state education commissioner on Friday, questioning the high stakes testing that is the cornerstone of his reform program.
Many at the annual convention of the New York State School Boards Association asked Commissioner Richard P. Mills to explain what they see as flaws in the system.
Some of the exams are not reliable, board members said. Others, like the advanced math exam, focus too much on theoretical problems rather than practical applications. Schools are penalized when struggling students persevere to graduate, but take longer than four years to do it, critics said.
Mills acknowledged that the tests aren't perfect, but suggested that board members and teachers need to share some of the responsibility for improving the schools.
"I should be under pressure continually to make the exams better," he said. "But instruction has to get better."
The open forum with Mills at this year's convention was, by many accounts, more congenial than in past years. Still, many board members left the session just as disgruntled as they were when they came in.
The focus on test scores "removes teachers' joy and creativity in teaching," one board member told Mills during the session in the Buffalo Convention Center. Teachers avoid teaching fourth and eighth grade -- the two years in which math and English exams are required, she said.
Consistently low eighth grade scores, another said, might indicate a problem with those tests, rather than a problem with the middle schools. Concerns over those low scores have prompted the Board of Regents to study ways to revamp the way middle schools are set up.
"Before we go and dismantle middle schools, are we sure those scores are doing what they're supposed to do?" one critic said.
Scores from the fourth and eighth grade tests, as well as high school Regents exams, are used to measure schools' success -- under Mills' state plan as well as the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Schools that don't improve enough from one year to the next are put on a list of problem schools, under federal guidelines. Such schools have to offer tutoring to struggling students and give them the option to transfer to a better school. If the problems go on too long, the school could eventually be taken over by the state.
The test-driven approach is paying off because it creates a tangible way to measure success, Mills said. Since the reforms began a few years ago, he said, more students are getting Regents diplomas. The minority achievement gap is shrinking.
Math scores are getting better. He pointed to Lorraine Elementary in Buffalo, a school he visited later in the day to highlight its success. In 2002, 41 percent of the fourth graders there met the state's math standards. Two years later, 93 percent of the fourth graders were up to par.